For a transitional approach to the EU

As the prospect of a fresh Eurozone crisis rears its head, the question of European left solidarity and resistance is once again coming to the fore. Reflecting on the experience of the intervening decade, Vladimir Bortun puts forward the case for adopting a transitional socialist strategy and programme towards the EU.

The new economic crisis facing the European Union requires us to revisit the lessons of the previous one, which exposed the class character and regional cleavages of the EU. It also exposed the dangers for the left in clinging on to the hope of reforming the EU. I argue here that the left needs to overcome the binary choice of reform or exit and develop the disobedient strategy outlined by the ‘Plan B for Europe’ initiative. That strategy has to be linked to a transitional programme pointing towards the need for systemic change along socialist and internationalist lines.

European integration as a class project

Like many other hegemonic projects in history, European integration was dressed in an attractive narrative about peace and prosperity. Thus, in the early stages, the left was relatively cohesive in its perception of integration, as a new hegemonic project meant to serve the economic and geopolitical interests of Euro-Atlantic capitalist classes (see Dunphy, 2004). This came about in a challenging post-war context for the latter: nationally, a new balance of forces in favour of the working class, with increasing mass support for the left; internationally, a loss of access to resources and markets due to Soviet domination over the other half of the continent and to the decolonisation process taking place in the rest of the world. A common market built on free trade would, therefore, facilitate maximisation of profit for big capital in Western Europe, but also for an expansionist US capitalism.

In the decades that followed the Eurocommunist turn in the late 1960s, much of the left gradually submitted to the narrative of European integration as a project for promoting peace and economic cooperation. Of course, this was not a linear process, with most orthodox communist parties, the Scandinavian red-green left, much of the Trotskyist movement and even sections of social democracy (e.g. the Labour Party in Britain) continuing to oppose the Common Market. This created in time a fundamental cleavage on the European left – perhaps the most salient today – between critical support for and opposition to integration, with its corresponding binary solutions: reform and exit.

By the 1990s, the reform position came to prevail as an expression of the wider reformism that much of the left embraced in its ideological retreat after 1989. This happened, paradoxically, as the neoliberal character of the EU was strengthened with each new integration leap, from the establishment of the Single Market (designed upon the recommendations of the big business lobby) to that of the economic and monetary union (a straitjacket on member states’ public spending capacity). Tokenistic gestures like the European Social Charter were toothless against the cuts, privatisations and social dumping entailed by the EU’s neoliberal architecture.

Regional cleavages and the Eurozone crisis

The founding myths of the EU were used also draw in countries from the former Eastern Bloc, for which integration was presented – just as in the case of post-dictatorship Southern European countries in the 1980s – as the only possible path to democratisation, modernisation and economic development. In reality, Central and Eastern European member states have served as new markets, fresh sources of raw materials and reservoirs of cheap labour for capital from the core of the EU. Furthermore, the free circulation of capital entails a race to the bottom among these peripheral countries in reducing their taxes and de-regulating their labour markets in order to attract foreign investment. The structural funds offered in return are the whitewash meant to justify this relation of dependency.

On the North-South axis, the introduction of the Euro at the turn of the century meant that, under the terms of the Maastricht Treaty, member states were now unable to make use of monetary tools to improve their trade balances. Southern member states, with structural trade deficits rooted in the late and uneven development of their capitalisms, proved particularly vulnerable to this. The neoliberal paradigm offered them two solutions: cutting public spending, which they did; and getting loans from surplus-based economies of Northern member states, which they also did, thus cementing the North-South unequal relationship.

This laid the conditions for a perfect storm, triggered by the global financial crisis of 2007-08. In what was dressed as ‘pan-European solidarity’, the Eurozone crisis saw peripheral member states take loans that mainly went to banks in the core rather than towards their own economic recovery. The loans came attached with harsh austerity measures, implemented under the close supervision of the Troika. Austerity, however, soon proved to be an economic and social disaster, leading to staggering rates of unemployment, poverty and inequality. Their economies have never fully recovered and the public debt levels are still very high – a ticking bomb that the current pandemic looks to be the trigger of.

At the same time, that economic and social crisis led to a political crisis that saw mainstream parties lose huge chunks of their electoral base, particularly the neoliberalised social democratic parties quick to bandwagon on the new orthodoxy of austerity. Thus, on the background of mass social movements and political disillusionment, new parties of the left emerged, from Greece to Spain, opposing austerity and the underlying neoliberal character of the EU.

The SYRIZA moment

The most successful of these parties was SYRIZA, which after successive leaps in growth won the Greek general elections in January 2015 on the basis of an anti-austerity programme. It was essentially a social democratic programme – in contrast to the party’s radical left image – that called for the restoration of the welfare state and for a European New Deal. Most importantly, it aimed to reverse previous cuts and renegotiate Greece’s debt with the Troika while excluding from the start the possibility of an exit from the Eurozone. This political choice fundamentally undermined its position in the negotiations. Hence, six months later, despite a referendum reinforcing its anti-austerity and anti-Troika mandate, when faced with the threat from the Troika with expulsion from the Eurozone, the left government accepted a deal entailing more cuts and privatisations.

The impact of SYRIZA’s defeat had a huge impact on the morale of popular classes and credibility of the left in Greece. Furthermore, it was met with very mixed reactions on the European left that ranged from justifications to accusations of betrayal. On the one hand, neither side of the new cleavage (including left parties and trade unions alike) had given in the previous months the kind of international support that would go beyond symbolic declarations of solidarity and put real pressure on their national governments to oppose, or at least not join in with, Troika’s bullying tactics. On the other hand, this new cleavage, further hindering an already underwhelming transnational cooperation of the European left, only reflected a deeper one regarding the question of the EU. While all admitted that the Troika’s contempt for the will of citizens fully exposed the undemocratic character of the EU, some – such as the newly formed DiEM25 – still insisted that it could be reformed from within. Even SYRIZA itself adopted a new strategy of building a broader coalition of MEPs, from different political groups, striving for a progressive EU.

This position, shared by a majority on the left including the Party of the European Left, essentially claims that abandoning the EU would only benefit reactionary, nationalist forces – a false dichotomy (also promoted by the neoliberal establishment) between the EU and nationalism, which effectively implies that international cooperation outside of the EU is somehow impossible. Thus, the argument goes, progressive policies can only be achieved through further integration, like the introduction of EU-level taxes.

However, such interesting ideas come without any realistic strategy to tilt the balance of forces so that the EU, with its entire neoliberal institutional design, can be pushed in a progressive direction. At the other end, the same handful of orthodox communist parties that have always called for an immediate exit from the EU, regardless of people’s consciousness on that matter, continued to do so, with the same lack of popular appeal. But at the same time, a third position also emerged: the strategy of disobedience proposed by the Plan B for Europe initiative.

The Plan B approach  

Plan B was launched in August 2015 as a call for an international summit on the question of the EU, signed by leading members of several left parties including the Bloco de Esquerda (Portugal), Parti de Gauche (France), Die Linke (Germany), De Rød-Grønne (Denmark), and Λαϊκή Ενότητα (Popular Unity, Greece), the left split from SYRIZA that opposed the deal signed with the Troika. The call described the deal as a ‘financial coup’ by which ‘the democratic, elected Greek government of Alexis Tsipras was brought to its knees by the European Union’. The first outing of this new initiative – soon joined by Podemos – took place in early 2016 in Paris and was followed by four other summits in Madrid (2016), Copenhagen (2016), Rome (2017), and Lisbon (2017).

The Plan B’s core argument, as crystallised in its political statements, was that the left and particularly any potential left government would have to adopt a two-fold strategy towards the EU:

1. A Plan A that would aim to renegotiate the European treaties while pursuing ‘a campaign of Civil European disobedience toward arbitrary European practices and irrational “rules” until that renegotiation is achieved’ – in other words, simultaneously try to change the EU’s neoliberal architecture and unilaterally implement progressive policies that would defy and openly clash with that architecture. This statement from the Rome summit offers the most detailed view of what should be changed about the EU:

“A deep reform of the European Central Bank to ensure full employment and to allow for funding public investments and ecologically sustainable economic activity as mandatory goals. … The abolishment of the TSCG/Fiscal Compact and a full stop to the institutions’ interference with national budgets … a European conference on debts with the aim to liberate the European peoples from unpayable debts … The re-orientation of the mercantilist policy agenda dominating the EU and, in particular, the Eurozone toward domestic aggregate demand to balance the current accounts. … The introduction of a principle of social non regression and social and ecological standards for the internal single market and for trade with non-EU partners … the introduction of minimum effective corporate taxation. … The adoption of a social protocol to protect social rights and collective bargaining against internal market freedoms … The preparation and the inclusion in the Treaties of the conditions to grant Member States wishing to do so an orderly exit from the Eurozone while stabilising exchange rates.”

2. Given the strong likelihood for such renegotiations to fail and for the EU establishment to threaten with exclusion from the Eurozone, if not the EU as a whole, a left government would need to already have in place a Plan B in order to avoid the same fate as SYRIZA. Such a plan would entail an ‘amicable divorce’ from the euro and the creation of a new monetary system. Indeed, in contrast to the conventional wisdom of reducing any anti-EU position to a yearning for national autarchy, the Lisbon declaration calls for ‘a new system of European cooperation based on the restoration of economic, fiscal and monetary sovereignty’.

… and its failures

However, such an internationalist alternative has not been further developed; nor is there the kind of programme needed to tackle the economic issues that would likely to stem from exiting the Eurozone, not to mention the EU. Last but not least, Plan B seems to lack a clear idea of how to build mass mobilisation in support of this strategy and a potential exit from the Eurozone. Actually, the whole Plan B initiative seems rather detached from the social groups whose interests it aims to defend, which is rather paradigmatic for the move away from social mobilisation that some of its constituent parties, including Bloco and Podemos, have displayed in their national arenas. This also seems to be the main shortcoming of other transnational initiatives, such as DiEM25 or the most recent Progressive International: founded in a top-down way, with little to no grounding in the labour and social movements, they look like an army with many generals but no soldiers.

Thus, Plan B has failed to develop in anything more than a series of party summits. An attempt to pump more life into the initiative came in April 2018, when the leaders of Bloco, Podemos and La France Insoumise met again in Lisbon to announce the creation of a new pan-European movement aiming to ‘break from the straitjacket of EU treaties that impose austerity and promote fiscal and social dumping’ and instead ‘build a new organisational project for Europe’. The new project, awkwardly named ‘Now, the people!’ movement, was subsequently joined by left parties from Denmark, Finland and Sweden. However, this ‘movement’ has not had any visible activity since and – unlike DiEM25, for example – even failed to put forward a common list of candidates in the 2019 European elections.

For a transitional strategy and programme

Despite its obvious political and organisational shortcomings, Plan B provides the embryo of what could be an alternative to both the reform and exit positions. The former is wrong on at least two levels: firstly, for maintaining the illusion in the redeemability of a capitalist project that would rather implode than become something that it was never meant to be; secondly, for failing to understand that siding with the status quo, even if critically, in the name of that illusion will not counter but aid the nationalist right, by allowing it to act as the ‘official’ opposition to the status quo (as illustrated by the case of Brexit, where most of the left abandoned the exit narrative to the right). Indeed, this flawed position on the EU question is of the key reasons for the current weakness of the left across Europe. The other position, which calls for an immediate exit in countries where the popular consciousness is not yet prepared for that, is equally flawed. In other words, if one position misreads the demands of the objective situation, the other one disregards the subjective conditions.

What is needed is a transitional approach that bridges the gap between where people’s consciousness is now with regards to the EU and the need to break away from it and from capitalism more generally – a system in deep crisis whose contradictions are increasingly unmanageable and unsustainable. Such an approach would entail, as proposed by Plan B, a left government, or coalition of left governments, disobeying the neoliberal EU treaties and unilaterally implementing policies aimed at the most pressing issues today: secure jobs, decent wages, quality healthcare and education, affordable housing, a clean environment, equal rights etc.

The inevitable resistance from EU institutions and other governments, their inevitable blackmail and threats, would reveal more clearly than ever the fundamental incompatibility between those policies and the EU’s neoliberal character. In turn, this would allow people – already disillusioned with the EU in large numbers – to draw the conclusion that they need to break with the EU.

Such a transitional strategy though would need a transitional programme, without which an exit from the Eurozone and, even more so, from the EU would likely lead to an economic disaster. Such a programme would include, among other things, the introduction of a new currency, which would initially be devalued but thereby help boost exports; capital controls, to prevent the drain of wealth abroad; nationalisation of banks, to make them work not for shareholders but for society, for example by providing cheap loans to SMEs and farmers; major public works, which would create jobs, build ‘green’ infrastructure etc.

Towards socialist transformation

However, such measures are necessary but not sufficient, as they would be met with relentless hostility from big capital and its representatives. To defend itself, a left government would have to go beyond the rather limited neo-Keynesian agenda that most of the so-called ‘radical left’ has put forward in recent years. The current context of capitalist crisis is qualitatively different from the post-WWII period that favoured (temporary) significant concessions from big capital. ‘Radical’ means to transform society from its roots and not just trim the branches. Shying away from that in the midst of system failure is what fundamentally explains the current weakness of the European left.

Given that weakness, therefore, it is hard to predict where such a transitional approach to the EU and socialist transformation could be put in practice from a position of power. Most likely, it will not come from the parties that capitalised on the previous Eurozone crisis and which have in the meantime lost much of their anti-establishment identity – but from the new left that will emerge from the social struggles and movements that will inevitably develop. This left will have to regain the courage to demand a different kind of society. It should make again the case for public ownership of the key sectors of the economy (including a state monopoly of foreign trade) and for a planned economy in the service of needs rather than profit. The ideological taboos of the 1990s have to be abandoned.

If the Covid-related crisis we’re going through is proving anything, it is that we cannot rely on the intrinsic chaos of the market to deal with the key issues facing humanity. It is also proving that under capitalism a united Europe is impossible, as each state is primarily serving the needs of its national capital. This emerged in the previous Eurozone crisis and is emerging again now, as core countries, particularly Germany and the Netherlands, are resisting the idea of Coronabonds that would see the EU as whole guaranteeing for the debt of any of its member states. That the Southern peripheral states quickly shrunk from the prospect of a major confrontation with the core powers, after initially offering some resistance, demonstrates both the difficulty and necessity of building effective alliances for transforming the economic and political system.

To avoid the failed experiences of the past century, it is also important to stress that socialist transformation would not be feasible without bottom-up democratic control of both the economy and the state. Equally, it would not be feasible on a national basis alone, since a left government without international allies would be quickly isolated and undermined. Hence, it would have to appeal to the popular classes from the rest of Europe, and beyond, for solidarity and support, summoning them to a joint struggle against the EU and national establishments. The alternative to the EU is not sovereignism, as some on the left are tempted to argue, but an international united front. Otherwise, the populist and far right will continue to benefit from the EU’s blatant failures and the left will continue to lose. Another Europe is not only possible but also necessary – and it cannot be the EU.

by Vladimir Bortun

Originally published on 27 May 2020 at as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.

Vladimir Bortun is a Romanian political scientist and activist based in Barcelona. In 2019 he obtained his PhD with a project about the transnational cooperation of left parties in Southern Europe. Comments on this article are welcome: